We Grow Enough Food to Feed Everyone in This World, So Why Don’t We? (Part 1)

MLB asks:

“Looking around, it seems to me as if one of the greatest economic problems is one of distribution: on the one hand a few own the majority of the resources, while on the other there are large numbers of people who do not have enough to get by. To read the newspapers, however, one would think the only issue economics concerns itself with is growth. If the economy is growing fast enough everything is supposed to be well, but if the rate of growth slows down economists worry. Why are economists more concerned with growth than distribution? Is it simply a matter of who they work for? Why shouldn’t money and resources be able to flow adequately to where they are needed if the economy is not expanding?”

The doomsayers predict worldwide famine and thus give economics another undeserved black eye as Malthus did two centuries ago. As in too many cases, normative economics replaces positive assessments and generally muddles discussions.

The basic facts are that agriculture has made incredibly positive strides over the last two centuries – and especially in the latter half of the twentieth century – and the fears of worldwide starvation are well overblown.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in various reports, including the latest on worldwide cereal production agrees with most statistical assumptions that the world’s population is expected to reach roughly eight billion by 2030 after which it is expected to experience slower growth. More importantly, it shows that production and productivity growth will continue to exceed demand.

Growth in cereal (wheat and rice) production is projected with an increase of 2.6 percent compared to last year’s crop. Similar increases are forecast for corn and soybeans. While India and China lead the world in producing rice and wheat, the United States clearly enjoys commanding leads in corn and soybeans. Brazil, Argentina, and China are rapidly vying for leadership of the latter.

Clearly, there is no worldwide famine in our immediate future, ceteris paribus.

Nonetheless, substantiated reports of regional famine, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, persist. The important fact to remember is that worldwide food production is not to blame. The weather, of course, does, as is evident through periodic droughts and other natural disasters. Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and others have been in the international news for months and years.

However, more than recurring weather problems on the continent, its basic lack of investment, continuous military conflict, and a chaotic social structure are much more to blame. In most instances, Africa proves that distribution of foodstuffs, not their potential lack, is a far greater danger than demand outstripping supply.

Lack of appropriate infrastructure hampers even international charitable organizations, let alone international or local trade. It, much more so than actual lack of food, is responsible for continuous recurrences of starvation in the so-called Third World.

Since Angola became the last colonial nation in Africa before achieving its independence in 1975, it provides a perfect example of the problems plaguing much of Africa apart from the weather.

Angola with its estimated population of sixteen million inhabitants is far from a poor country in terms of natural resources. It is principally endowed with oil and diamonds, agricultural products, and fisheries. Yet the country has been continually involved in internal war for twenty-seven years, from its independence until 2002. Until the collapse of communism Angola became a sideshow to the U.S.S.R. and the United States as part of the overall Cold War. Since Angola is now a member of OPEC and as such a beneficiary of the rising price of oil, it remains to be seen how the economic benefits of the price hike will be applied in Angola.

The nation should hardly be subject to the ravages of famine and disease, yet it is. In most cases, Angola ranks in the bottom tenth percentile of various measurements. A U.S. State Department analysis of July writes: “Despite abundant natural resources, and rising per capita GDP, it was ranked 161 out of 177 countries on the 2006 UN Development Program’s (UNDP) Human Development Index. Subsistence agriculture sustains one-third of the population.”

Angola’s problems, like those of so many other countries, cannot be laid solely at the feet of American or even Russian economists who vied for position in the country’s lengthy war. The International Monetary Fund, usually in the forefront of providing copious advice and loans, provides continuous reports to the Angolan government. Unfortunately, as is too often the case especially in Third World countries, the IMF imposes restrictions which often are unacceptable to the client countries. Angola opted to establish closer ties with China, now the chief consumer of its oil riches. As a first step, Angola also received a US$2 billion soft loan guarantee from China’s Exim bank.

The example of Angola can be replicated many times over in Africa and other poorer countries across the globe.

It also clearly points out that economists can use all the graphs and formulas to describe the past, present, or future in terms of quantitative data.

Economics and other sciences show us that we can feed everyone in this world today and for the foreseeable future. We can also make our judgments as to distribution.

What economics cannot do is determine why we don’t feed everyone. That is a question that requires a subjective answer based on your own perspective on the nature of mankind. And that perspective presupposes your own values and beliefs.

Stephan is a former department chair for economics and taught at various colleges and universities at both graduate and undergraduate levels. Read his full bio at and submit your economics-related questions to his post “Got an Economics Question?”

1 comment to We Grow Enough Food to Feed Everyone in This World, So Why Don’t We? (Part 1)

  • Jim

    Thanks for this article, Stephan. Hunger is a political problem in the true sense of the word. The world’s hungry will hunger no more the day that local, regional, and world leaders summon the will to work together. Jesus said the poor will always be with us. Was he a better economist than most people realize? Jesus knew that, given adequate time and resources, there is no limit to man’s technological and scientific potential. Still, he said the poor will always be with us. The limits are limits of the heart: the inability of political leaders to will one thing; their inability to do unto others as they wish others to do to them.

    On top of distribution, tradition is another barrier to solving the world’s food dilemma. I remember how excited scientists were in the 60s when new hybrid species of rice and wheat provided the opportunity to dramatically increase crop yields. But people in India wouldn’t eat the rice. Indians (as I learned firsthand when I spent some time there in the 70s), share food served in a large bowl by picking clumps of rice out the bowl with their fingers. The “wonder rice” was rejected by Indian clients because it didn’t clump together. I have not read anything on this in decades, but I suspect there have been similar experiences in other parts of the world.

    Sorry–this post is almost as long as a Joyce novel. I won’t do it again–your article touched one of my buttons!

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